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Remarks on `Rethinking Puberty'
by McClintock and Herdt

Peter Schulte-Stracke

Abstract. The view that puberty is triggered by the maturation of the gonads is found conflicting with recent results on sexual development, and a better explanation is given in terms of the maturation of the adrenal glands, several years earlier.

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GILBERT HERDT; MARTHA MCCLINTOCK: Rethinking Puberty : The Development of Sexual Attraction.-- Current Developments in Psychological Science 5(6): 178-183 (Dec. 1996)

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Early sexual attraction.

During their research into the development of (homo-)sexual orientation in gay youth [*1], Andrew BOXER and Gilbert HERDT repeatedly learned of an onset of sexual attraction well before the customarily assumed threshold of puberty:  

A youth remembers a time when he was sitting in the family room with his parents watching the original ``Star Trek'' television series. He reports that he was 10 years old and had not developed any of the obvious signs of puberty. When ``Captain Kirk'' suddenly peeled off his shirt, the boy was titillated. At 10 years of age, this was his first experience of sexual attraction, and he knew instinctively that, according to the norms of his parents and society, he should not be feeling this same-gender attraction. [...]  

By age 10 [...] a profound transformation had begun, and it was already completed when he entered puberty; sexual attraction to the same gender was so familiar to him, that it defined his selfhood. (178)

In fact, in all of three recent studies, of gay youth [*1] or gay [*2] and lesbian [*3] adults, the onset of sexual attraction was consistently found to be much earlier than expected, namely around 10 years (cf. Table 1). An impression of the early age at which many individuals reported their first sexual attraction is given by Figure 1, which derives from a similar study.

Table 1
Ages (years) at which males and females recall having their first same-sex attraction, fantasy and activity, from [*1]

Development event









First same-sex attraction







First same-sex fantasy







First same-sex activity








Figure 1:
Cumulated age of first sexual attraction (as reported in [*3] for homosexual oriented males). Data approximately taken from drawing on page 322.



Traditional view of Puberty.

The foregoing is difficult to reconcile with a customary view of puberty that is thus summarised by the authors:

[G]onadarche(final maturation of the testes and ovaries) is the biological basis for the child's budding interest in sexual matters. Earlier studies postulated that the profound maturational changes during puberty instigate the transition from preadolescent to to adult forms of sexuality that involve sexual attraction, fantasy, and behaviour. [*4] Thus adult forms of sexuality were thought to develop only after gonadarche, typically around ages 12 for girls and 14 for boys, with early and late bloomers being regarded as ``off time'' in development. [*5] (178)

In this view, the development of sexuality is understood as a ``precipitous, singular, psychological event, fueled by intrinsic changes in hormonal levels. Gonadarche is seen as a `switch', turning on desire and attraction, and hence triggering the developmental sequelae of adult sexuality.'' (179) The long stretch of time prior to the onset of puberty, when the levels of said hormones reach a threshold, is considered to be without development of sexuality, the famous latency period of FREUD.

Because puberty (qua gonadarche) happens too late, and also because it happens at a differing age for both sexes, it is difficult to explain the data on the onset of sexual attraction by it. But it is also difficult to see a purely external, social learning explanation, as at ten years there is no change in society's way with the children, nor can social learning account for the case of homosexually oriented individuals. (181f.) So the authors look for another possible explanation: Adrenarche.

Adrenarche in Middle Childhood.

From the clinical, pediatric literature it is well known that children from the age of about six to eight years are experiencing a rise in androgens, primarily dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), secreted from the then maturing adrenal cortex. The metabolism of DHEA yields both testosterone and estradiol. This rise occurs parallelly in both boys and girls, in marked contrast to later sexual development. At about ten years of age, the level of DHEA is about ten times that observed in younger children [*6], where it remains until raising further to adult levels when the gonads start to produce them.

  Adrenarche is clinically recognized primarily by the onset of pubic hair, but it also includes a growth spurt, increased oil on the skin, changes in the external genitalia, and the development of body odour. Nonetheless, both the psychological literature and the institutions of our culture regard this period of middle childhood as hormonally quiescent.[*2] (180)

In adults, these androgens are known to have ``psychological effects in a variety of developmental areas relating to aggression, cognition, perception, attention, emotions, and sexuality[,]'' (180) ``and it is plausible that the same hormones would have similar effects at an earlier age.'' (182)

Therefore, the authors conclude, that a ``change in the nervous system that results from hormones released at adrenarche does look like the most likely developmental mechanism for several reasons'' (182), but add that this question cannot yet be answered definitively.


``This observation, in turn leads to a redefinition of pubertal and prepubertal development.'' (178) and this even if the hormonal changes should prove not to be the true cause, because those models ``assume that adult desires and behaviours develop from gonadarche.'' (182) ``Freud's idea of a latency period is seriously flawed.'' (l.c.)

The new picture then of puberty, that is not confounded with gonadarche, ``is composed of at least two separate maturational processes: adrenarche and gonadarche.'' (l.c.) And there is another twist:


The idea of sexuality developing in stages is nothing new to social scientists. But the idea that sexuality is a continuous process that begins from the inside, well before gonadarche, and extends into adulthood is a conceptual advance. These new data from sexual orientation research force a reevaluation of the social and health models of sexual development. No longer can the brain at puberty be treated as a black box, which is suddenly able to process sexual stimuli de novo at the time of gonadal change. (183)


Given that casual (self-)observation has always pointed to a more extended period of sexual development, one might wonder how much of the popular idea of a youth overwhelmed at puberty by a sudden flood of sex hormones owes more to dramaturgy, from Vienna or Hollywood, than to psychology.

The place of puberty (qua sexual maturation) in society as an important moment in life was handed down, from Roman and later canon law, it appears, with an exclusive view to marriage and procreation. It is well known, that as late as in 18th century France, the sexual activity of children before their maturation was simply ignored.

Now, the new meaning of puberty could obviously not be based upon observation, but may be yet another example of changing historical semantics: with the delay of marriage and the appearance of youth on the historical stage, puberty lost its old importance, only to be re-commissioned into a different rôle. (A story not here to be told.)

Was it only associated with the masturbation hysteria from the late 18th century onwards? Note also the parallel with the purely legal concept of `consent' today, which has also taken on ontological dimensions.


One question arises immediately: for what purpose a child's entry into sexuality is staged in this way? Why do we develop sexual interest that early, without in most cases outwardly realizing them? Only, it seems, to direct our regards and educate our desires.

Evidently, not procreation per se is the purpose of the delay, but perhaps growing phantasies which might foster the ability to love, perhaps wrapping the still unborn desire into more altruistic clothes, perhaps enriching/generalising the libido. If culture pays off, it should make sense, evolutionary. I mention the idea, perhaps forgotten, that a child profits from a time to grow inwardly, to cherish its ideas etc.

It makes perhaps the individual more able to associate specific meanings with procreation, the evolutionary raison d'être of all and everything. So let's speculate that it would allow a more cultural bias in mate selection etc.


Little is said about the most important of all questions, how the individual child organises its budding sexuality. If the child is more actively involved with its sexual development: what does it with these experiences and their meaning? Both social skills and interpretations are to be developed. And the hormonal development does not make actual experiences redundant, but only prepares the way for them. There are meanings to be associated, experiences interpreted, thus the endogenous moment of sexual awakening remains dependent on the child's environment to flourish.

Here may also be the place for the fact that there are many heterosexual boys who long for an older male partner for this period of their life (the authors assume a fixed sexual orientation by age ten).


The standard deviations given in table 1, more than three years for children of ten years of age, (But beware! These are surely very imprecise data from a small sample) should remind us again that the development of children goes at an individual pace, and that the age in itself does not tell very much about the maturity or ability of a child.


Redefining Puberty

Now ``[r]esearchers need to take into account the hormonal fact that the start of puberty in normal individuals is around ages 6 to 8 and the end of puberty is not until ages 15 to 17.''(182f) Amusing, and a bit reassuring, because many can now be assured, that their feelings were not pathologically early, result of bad influences, or whatever, just normal.

`Normality regained' could be our headline, as the sexual development not only takes longer and starts earlier than hitherto assumed; it must be seen but interwoven with and a part of general development. Sexuality must no longer be considered the great exception that it used to be, where anything developed but sexuality was spared for the great onslaught of the sex hormones. Also the idea of an adult sexuality that pre-exists per se, only to be fetched at puberty, is de-valuated.


There is an ambiguity with respect to the notion of puberty. Most lay people understand, I believe, puberty more loosely, as starting with what the article calls adrenarche, say pubic hair or breast buds. Educated people nowadays very often play with this, using the medical strict definition as as gonadarche (spermarche, menarche) to eschew a discussion of the legal situation. Saying `not before puberty' is a means for them to sound very critical and compassionate while meaning nothing.

This ambiguity finds itself also in the article, this shows that there is a real problem. The decisive point is not that certain psychological changes are not the consequence of the hormones secreted by the gonadal glands, but of those secreted by the adrenal glands, but the fact that these changes are not immediately directed towards procreation, but towards the child's inner development.


1. G. Herdt and A. B. Boxer, Children of Horizons.
New York: Beacon, 1993.

2. A. Pattatucci and D. Hamer, ``Development and familiality of sexual orientation in females,'' Behavior Genetics, vol. 25, pp. 407-420, 1995.

3. D. Hamer, S. Hu, V. Magnuson, N. Hu, and A. Pattatucci, ``A linkage between DNA markers on the X-chromosom and male sexual orientation,'' Science, vol. 261, pp. 321-327, 1993.

4. J. Money and A. Ehrhardt, Man, woman, boy, girl.
Johns Hopkins University Press, 1972.

5. A. B. Boxer, R. Levinson, and A. Peterson, ``Adolescent sexuality,'' in The adolescent as decision-maker (J. Worrel and F. Danner, eds.), pp. 209-244, Academic Press, 1989.

6. L. Parker, ``Adrenarche,'' Endocrinology and Metabolism Clinics of North America, vol. 20, no. 1, pp. 71-83, 1991.


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